Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Analyzing the Coherence of Science Curriculum Materials

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Analyzing the Coherence of Science Curriculum Materials

Article excerpt


International studies of students' science and mathematics scores have shown that the coherence of a country's curriculum is a strong indicator of student achievement in science and mathematics (Schmidt & McKnight, 1998; Schmidt & Prawat, 2006). One manifestation of curricular coherence is emphasis on a limited number of topics in the curriculum rather than the coverage of many topics. Schmidt et al. (2001) examined the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data and found that "Curricular materials in high-performing nations focus on fewer topics, but also communicate the expectation that those topics will be taught in a deeper, more profound way" (p. 303).

Examination of the science curricula in the six highest-achieving countries in the TIMSS revealed that in these countries science topics are gradually introduced into the curriculum, remain for several grades, and then leave (Schmidt, Wang, & McKnight, 2005). This contrasts with lower-achieving countries such as the U.S. in which science topics enter the curriculum early and remain throughout the subsequent years, even as more topics are added. In summarizing the TIMSS findings Schmidt described the science and mathematics curricula of the high-performing countries as "coherent, focused, and rigorous" (Schmidt, 2003; Schmidt et al., 2001). By comparison low-performing countries tended to have disarticulated, unfocused, and less rigorous approaches to science and mathematics curriculum.

Instructional materials exert powerful influence on curriculum as a whole (Arzi & White, 2004; Schmidt et al., 2001). Thus, coherent instructional materials increase the likelihood of delivering a coherent curriculum. In this study our goal was to test a method for assessing the coherence of curriculum materials.


Cognitive scientists have conducted research that helps explain why coherence is critical for achievement. The findings of these studies are synthesized and summarized in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000), of particular relevance to the importance of a coherent curriculum. One key finding of these studies is that learning for understanding requires that students not only have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, but also that those facts and ideas be connected and organized around important concepts. We refer to this organization of facts and ideas as a conceptual framework. Bransford et al. (2000) state:

   Superficial coverage of all topics in a subject area must be
   replaced with indepth coverage of fewer topics that allows key
   concepts in that discipline to be understood. (p. 20)


We find coherence, focus, and rigor to be powerful ways of thinking about curricula. Newmann, Smith, Allensworth, and Bryk, (2001) describe curricular coherence as: "sensible connections and co-ordination between the topics that students study in each subject within a grade and as they advance through the grades" (p. 298). This definition of coherence includes an emphasis on a common instructional framework that guides curriculum, the progression of increasingly complex subject matter as students progress through the grades, and the presence of student support programs such as tutoring and remedial instruction. Bybee (2003) echoes the idea of connections and coordination among concepts in his description of coherence: "Coherence occurs when a small number of basic components are defined in a system, organized in conceptual relationship to each other, and other components are based on or derived from those basic components" (p. 16). Rutherford (2000) also emphasizes connections: "Things are coherent if their constituent parts connect to one another logically, historically, geographically, physically, mathematically, or in some other way to form a unified whole" (p. 21). Similarly, Roseman, Linn, and Koppal (2008) describe coherent curriculum materials as "presenting a complete set of interrelated ideas and making connections among them explicit" (p. …

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